Throat Cancer

Throat Cancer Image

The pharynx (throat) is a hollow tube that begins behind the nose and ends at the top of the windpipe and esophagus. Throat cancer develops in the throat (pharyngeal cancer) or voice box (laryngeal cancer). A throat cancer diagnosis may specifically indicate one of the following cancers:

  • Glottic cancer: Starts in the vocal cords.
  • Hypopharyngeal (or laryngopharyngeal) cancer: Starts in the lower part of the throat, just above the esophagus and windpipe.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer: Starts in the upper part of the throat, behind the nose.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer: Starts in the middle part of the throat, behind the mouth.
  • Subglottic cancer: Starts in the lower part of the voice box, below the vocal cords.
  • Supraglottic cancer: Starts in the upper part of the voice box and includes cancer of the epiglottis (cartilage that prevents food from entering the windpipe).

The National Institutes of Health reports that a throat cancer diagnosis is most likely in adults over age 50, with 10 times more men developing throat cancer symptoms than women.

Throat Cancer Symptoms

Possible throat cancer symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Ear pain
  • Incessant sore throat
  • Lump or sore that doesn’t heal in the back of the mouth, throat or neck
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • Voice changes, like hoarseness
  • Weight loss.

In addition to these throat cancer symptoms, breathing problems and bleeding in the throat may occur in advanced stages of cancer.

Risk Factors for a Throat Cancer Diagnosis

The following factors increase the risk of throat cancer:

  • Asbestos exposure
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • EBV (Epstein Barr virus), associated with nasopharyngeal cancer
  • HPV (human papillomavirus), a sexually transmitted virus
  • Lack of fruits and vegetables in the diet
  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Tobacco use.

In order to prevent a throat cancer diagnosis, avoid and eliminate as many of these risk factors as possible.

Throat Cancer Treatment

Treatment of throat cancer typically consists of one or more of the following:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery to remove the cancer and sometimes regional lymph nodes or part of the throat or larynx
  • Targeted drug therapy to stop the growth of cancer cells.

Another important part of treatment is to cease tobacco and alcohol use. Although no alternative treatments are proven to improve a throat cancer prognosis, acupuncture, meditation and relaxation techniques may help you cope with a cancer diagnosis.

Treatment for throat cancer often causes complications. For example, if surgery includes a tracheotomy, caring for a surgical opening in the throat (stoma) is necessary. Other possible complications include:

  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Neck stiffness and pain
  • Respiratory problems
  • Speech problems.

If detected early, the National Institutes of Health reports a favorable throat cancer prognosis, with a 90 percent cure rate. If the cancer spreads to surrounding tissues or lymph nodes in the neck, this rate decreases to 50 to 60 percent.

Once the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, it’s considered incurable and treatment aims to prolong and improve quality of life. For this reason, early detection is important to ensure the best throat cancer prognosis possible.


Mayo Clinic Staff. (2008). Throat cancer. Retrieved June 11, 2010, from the Mayo Clinic website:

Medline Plus Staff. (2010). Cancer — throat or larynx. Retrieved June 11, 2010, from the Medline Plus website:

National Cancer Institute Staff. (n.d.) Throat (laryngeal and pharyngeal) cancer. Retrieved June 11, 2010, from the National Cancer Institute website:

UCSF Medical Center Staff. (n.d.) Head and neck cancer: Throat cancers. Retrieved June 11, 2010, from the UCSF Medical Center website: